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Buffalo’s Maritime Past, Vanished (Part 2 of 3)

Author: Jeff Z. Klein

(A version of this article appeared in the July 9, 2020, edition of Belt magazine, and in the anthology “Best of Belt 2020: Dispatches From the Rust Belt, Vol. III”) | See part I


On August 18, 1852, some 130 immigrant farmers from Norway lay sleeping among their baggage on the bustling wharf in Buffalo, waiting for the ship that would take them to new farmlands in Wisconsin. 

Two months earlier 200 of them had crossed the ocean from Oslo to Quebec City. There they boarded vessels first for Montreal, then Toronto and Queenston, Ontario, just below Niagara Falls, sleeping on wharves, like they were doing now in Buffalo, as they awaited the arrival of their connecting boats. Seventy of the Norwegians ran out of money and could go no further. The rest of them waited for their ship through the night on the dock in Buffalo, the last city in the East. 

It came the next afternoon, a sidewheel steamer called the Atlantic. The ship was doomed (lead image).

The Atlantic left Buffalo overfilled with the Norwegians and as many as 400 other passengers, some 250 crowded onto the outdoor decks. At Erie, Pennsylvania, another 100 passengers jammed aboard before the Atlantic shoved off again into the foggy night. 

Soon after 1 a.m. those sleeping on deck were startled awake by a loud crash — another steamer, the Ogdensburg, had rammed into the Atlantic in the fog somewhere off Long Point, Ontario. One Norwegian farmer, Amund Eidsmoe awoke to see “a large beam fall down upon a Norwegian woman of our company … it crushed several bones and completely tore the head off a little baby that lay at her side.” The Ogdensburg, largely undamaged, inexplicably steamed away as water rushed into the Atlantic’s cabins below deck. A lifeboat was lowered, but it quickly sank, carrying several victims with it. Another Norwegian, Erik Torstad, heard “a pitiful cry” arise from the hundreds still aboard the sinking ship. Torstad clambered to the topmost deck and jumped into the waves as the Atlantic slipped beneath the surface. He made it onto a small lifeboat; others grabbed floating debris. The Ogdensburg returned to pluck survivors from the water. 

About 200 survived the wreck of the Atlantic, but no one knows how many died. Estimates vary from 150 to 350, many of them Germans and Irish bound for Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, and 68 of the Norwegians. “The misery and the cries of distress which I witnessed and heard that night are indescribable,” Torstad wrote, “and I shall not forget it all as long as I live.” 


Public historians in Buffalo have done a remarkable job over the last 20 years commemorating its history as a 19th- and 20th-century industrial and commercial center. This is particularly true at Canalside, in the nearby grain elevator district and along the Industrial Heritage Trail, a bike and walking path through the disused and abandoned factory lands that brings the city’s bustling, monumental, smoke-filled past to life. Also very well documented are the journeys of the immigrants who wound up in Buffalo between 1840 and 1920 — especially the Irish, Germans, Poles and Italians. 

But the immigrants who boarded Buffalo ships on their way to the Midwest in the 1840s and 1850s, and the hordes of settlers from upstate New York who sailed to the Midwest with them? Not so much. 

“The opening of the interior of the country that happened via people proceeding westward from Buffalo is the part of the story that’s not told,” Gerber said. And, he added, that story is as significant as any in America’s past.

“The larger historical reality that the movement of population and trade west from Buffalo implied for American history was the binding together of the Northern states,” he said. “In some ways that created the basis for the alignment of these states in the Civil War.” 

If creating a North that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Prairies seems like a far-fetched claim to make for Buffalo, consider the way white people speak in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Those flat A’s and other shifted vowels are, simply put, an upstate New York accent. According to the linguist Dr. William Labov, whose Atlas of North American English is the prime authority on the continent’s speech, the accent traveled along the Erie Canal from places like Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, then across the Great Lakes, with the homesteaders who settled the Midwest.

A whole region of people who talk like Buffalonians. A frightening notion, but a telling one, as Gerber attests. “You could say it manifests the binding together the states of the northern U.S.,” he said. 


“Those grand fresh-water seas of ours,” Melville wrote of the Great Lakes in Moby-Dick, are “swept by Borean and dismasting blasts as direful as any that lash the salted wave; they know what shipwrecks are, for out of sight of land, however inland, they have drowned full many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew.”

In August 1841 the paddlewheel steamer Erie left Buffalo for Detroit with about 240 passengers and had sailed only 33 miles when an explosion and fire, fueled by containers of paint and varnish stored on deck, consumed the ship in 15 minutes. More than 200 died, mostly German and Swiss immigrants. 

The Phoenix, out of Buffalo, aflame on Lake Michigan in 1847. (Wikimedia Commons, from James T. Lloyd, “Lloyd’s steamboat directory, and disasters on the western waters,” 1853)

In November 1847 the propeller ship Phoenix departed Buffalo for Milwaukee with about 275 aboard, most of them Dutch immigrants, and was in Lake Michigan when a fire broke out in its boilers. The vessel’s two lifeboats, capacity 20 persons each, were successfully launched, but all but three of those left behind died aboard the burning ship or in the frigid waters.

In June 1850 the paddlewheeler G.P. Griffith steamed from Buffalo with some 325 aboard, mostly immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia, headed for Toledo. Its smokestacks caught fire off Fairport, Ohio, and the panicked crew ran the ship aground on a sandbar. It burned to the waterline, with about 275 lives lost. 

So many stories of drama, tragedy and bravery, a heritage that goes unappreciated in Buffalo. “Has it been forgotten? Sure,” said Jack Messmer, editor of The Harbormaster, published by the Buffalo Harbor Museum. The museum is a small-scale downtown nonprofit that draws only about 1,500 annual visitors and is itself sadly unappreciated. While nine other Great Lakes cities boast permanently moored museum freighters or passenger steamers, some more than 600 feet long, Buffalo has only one little exhibit hall staffed by a small band of enthusiasts.  

Still, the harbor museum and Messmer’s newsletter keep Buffalo’s nautical heritage alive, brimming with tales of the city’s maritime past and present. 

And scores of harrowing accounts of shipwrecks — like that of the Oneida, a wheat schooner struck by a steamship in a heavy gale off Point Abino, Ont., almost within sight of Buffalo Harbor, in October 1853. The sailing ship went to the bottom, but one man managed to climb a mast, which remained above water. He clung there in the howling wind and rain for more than 12 hours before he was rescued. 

A typical Great Lakes schooner of the 19th century. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540, from Detroit Publishing Company photograph collection)

Then there was Light Vessel 82, a lighthouse service boat with a crew of six anchored 13 miles off Buffalo Harbor, sunk without a trace by the deadly “White Hurricane” storm of November 1913. A few days later a hatch cover washed ashore. On it was scrawled a handwritten message from Capt. Hugh Williams to his wife: 

Goodbye Nellie

Ship is breaking up fast


There is a small memorial to the six men who died aboard the LV-82. It’s on Point Abino. 

Lead image: The collision of the Atlantic, out of Buffalo, and the Ogdensburg. (Wikimedia Commons, from Gleason’s | Pictorial, 11 September 1852, Boston)

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